A year ago the debate about Iraq centred on the question of the new regime’s chances of survival. Many pundits believed that Iraqis, and Arabs in general, are not fit for a pluralist system of government and that unless a new jackboot with a moustache were found Iraq would go to the dogs. Some, including Joseph Biden, who may well become US Vice President next week, were working on plans to carve Iraq into three or more mini-states to prevent it from becoming a major regional player under any regime.
Well, the pundits were proved wrong, and Biden appears to have shelved his stupid plan, at least for now. Today, the debate about Iraq is centred on the agreement under which US and allied forces would remain at the invitation of the Iraqi government for a specific period.
Last week, Iraqi negotiators presented a draft of the Status of Forces (SOFA) agreement to the Cabinet and key political leaders as the first move towards submitting it to the parliament for ratification.
Asharq Al-Awsat has rendered the Iraqi people an immense service by publishing the full text of the 31 article accord, enabling Iraqis, and others interested in the future of Iraq, to judge for themselves. The text exposes much of the propaganda regarding the agreement coming from Tehran and its surrogates in Iraq as exaggerated or false.
The US has similar agreements with some 90 countries across the globe, including the United Kingdom and Japan. A comparison between the text of the agreement proposed to Iraq and similar texts signed by other countries would show that far from trying to impose anything on Iraq, the US has gone out of its way to accommodate Iraqi sensibilities. The Khomeinist propaganda’s mischievous claim that the agreement would turn Iraqi into an American base for aggression against others has no basis in fact.
Still, whether or not Iraq should invite American forces to remain for two years or more is a legitimate issue of concern that must be debated openly and honestly.
The Iraqis now know what is in the agreement. Therefore, they could discount the rhetoric coming from Tehran and its allies such as Muqtada Sadr and Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
Since Sadr and al-Jaafari could no longer make wild claims about the agreement or invent conspiracy theories, they should face the real question: should we ask the Americans to stay, or should we tell them to leave?
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki might have done better had he opened the process of negotiations with a resolution put to the parliament giving him the mission of negotiating an agreement under which the US could maintain a military presence in Iraq for as long as the two sides wanted it. That did not happen.
However, even now the debate should start with the key questions: do we want the Americans to stay? Once there is a positive answer, the debate could move onto the actual terms of the agreement.
Some Iraqi leaders, notably Massoud Barzani whose statesmanship has helped save the new regime from many crises, have taken a clear stand: they want the US to remain alongside Iraq as long as needed.
Others should show the same degree of courage by taking position for or against the American presence.
Anyone familiar with current Iraqi sensibilities would know that a majority of Iraqis favour a continued American presence.
Kurds know that without US support they would not have secured the measure of autonomy they enjoy today.
Arab Shiites know that they owe their dominant position in the government as much to US support as to their numerical majority in the country.
Arab Sunnis know that the American presence has prevented their total exclusion from the new system, something that always happens to a ruling minority in a Middle Eastern country whenever there is regime change.
Nevertheless, the temptation to appear anti-American is too strong for many Iraqi politicians to resist. These days, anti-Americanism is fashionable everywhere, including in the US itself, where Barack Obama, a man who spent his youth hating “ Imperialism”, may be elected president next Tuesday.
Iraq, however, cannot afford the luxury of anti-Americanism.
Today it faces a stark choice.
One option is to pass the SOFA, with amendments if necessary, and make sure that the US remains committed to defending Iraq at least until 2011, that is to say after the next general election and the formation of the next coalition government in Baghdad. That would give Iraq the time needed to stabilise new institutions while its leadership elite gets accustomed to what is a new form of politics in the region.
The other option is to reject the SOFA and ask the United Nations to extend its mandate for the US-led coalition for another year.
That could open a Pandora’s box of imponderables.
A new administration in Washington will almost certainly try to put its own imprint on events.
If Obama is elected, he would be under pressure from defeat-mongers in his party to do all he can to show that Iraq is a disaster, quagmire, catastrophe etc produced by a bungling George W Bush.
If McCain wins he, too, might want to demarcate himself from Bush by reducing America’s commitment or advancing demands designed to show him as a tough guy. The uncertainty thus created could divide the Iraqi political elite. Many, including perhaps a majority of Shiites, would try to win Iranian protection. Such a move could spell the end of Iraq as an independent state, and may even lead to its dismemberment as Tehran seeks a separate Shiite state in the central and southern provinces.
The third option is to play demagogic theatre until the end. That would be like the orchestra that kept playing as the Titanic was sinking. Iraqi politicians could make anti-American speeches, using all their talents for flowery but meaningless oratory. The Americans would then leave, tired and fed up with a project that no longer enjoys popular support in the United States.
Iraq is at a crossroads and needs wise and farsighted leadership to ignore the fashions of the day and make hard choices for the future.